What is the difference between USB-C and Thunderbolt?

The USB-C charging port was supposed to bring order and standardize the market. The goal was to establish one universal connector that would work in laptops, phones and all other mobile devices. This art has not yet succeeded, but as we will say today, we are on the right track. Find out what USB-C, Thunderbolt is and what the recently announced USB 4 will bring. Come and read it!

Same look, so where is the difference?

Looking at Thunderbolt ports on new MacBooks and other laptops, for example, you’ll see that they’re no different than USB-C. So where’s the difference between them? We’ve already explained.

USB-C – the latest version of the USB connector

USB-C – the letter C next to USB indicates only the type, or in simple terms, the shape of the plug. For comparison, the most popular USB-A so far looks like this:


Definitely less frequently used, mainly in office devices USB-B looks like this:

And finally, what we are most interested in is the USB-C standard that currently dominates the new devices:

As we mentioned at the beginning, USB-C was introduced in 2014 to establish one connector that can be used on any device. The connector is suitable for video, audio, data transfer and charging up to 100 watts. However, to benefit from the full range of USB-C capabilities, communication protocols, compatible devices and even suitable cables are required.

Development of USB technology

It’s one thing to change the plug types, but developing USB technology itself is a completely different matter. Since the creation of the USB in 1996 the possibilities of this standard have gradually increased every few years. At the beginning of USB 1.0 we were able to upload one photo per second, and now we will even upload a movie in a second.

The names of the latest versions are as follows:

  • USB 3.2 Gen 1 – used by USB-A or USB-C and has a transfer rate of 5 Gbps
  • USB 3.2 Gen 2 – uses a USB-A or USB-C port, with a transfer rate of 10 Gbps
  • USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 – until recently, the latest specification available only for USB-C allowing for 20 Gbps transfer rate

As we have already said, the differences are in the speed of data transfer. Intel’s Thunderbolt technology has long been at the forefront of this.

Thunderbolt 3 – technology adapted to the USB-C connector

The term Thunderbolt no longer refers to the plug type and was not originally associated with USB – it is a communication protocol created in 2009 by Intel in collaboration with Apple. It was supposed to be a series of functions, such as connecting a monitor, external graphics card or very fast data transfer. MacBook users will remember that the Thunderbolt 1 and 2 versions of Thunderbolt 1 and 2 were supported by the Mini DisplayPort plug. From version 3 upwards, it already uses a common, universal USB-C connector.

The first Thunderbolt 3 notebooks from Acer, Asus, HP and Dell were launched at the end of 2015, and the following year we could find them on MacBooks. Today, every new MacBook and the vast majority of other brands of laptops have at least one Thunderbolt port. It’s critical to the spread of the standard that Intel has waived its license fee for Thunderbolt, so anyone can use it.

Can you distinguish between USB-C and Thunderbolt 3?

The latest version of Thunderbolt uses USB-C. So we can use a statement that we associate with the basics of geometry, which described the relationship between square and rectangle. So not every USB-C is Thunderbolt 3, but every Thunderbolt 3 is USB-C. As for the recognition itself, we can remember that at the Thunderbolt 3 ports we will see the aforementioned lightning symbol.

The enormous potential of Thunderbolt 3 technology

As the name suggests, the Thunderbolt connector is marked by a characteristic lightning. It is very accurate, as in the current version it achieves a transfer rate of as much as 40 Gbps and allows to transmit 5K and 4K images at as much as 60 Hz and connect up to 2 monitors. The huge functionality of the port is perfectly illustrated by the USB-C Green Cell GC Connect60 hub.

Perfectly matched to your MacBook profile, it connects to two USB-C ports on your MacBook and offers three USB 3.0, USB-C, HDMI, Thunderbolt 3 and two card readers – SD and micro SD. So Thunderbolt 3 in conjunction with the hub allows us to connect such a set of devices to your laptop at the same time:

  • Monitor in resolution up to 5K or 4K with up to 60 Hz via HDMI
  • Phone via USB-C with 5 Gbps transfer
  • Mouse and Keyboard
  • Flash drive
  • SD and micro SD memory card

And this is just one of many possible configurations. The Thunderbolt port gives you a lot of functionality for your laptop, but of course you need a USB-C adapter to get the most out of it.

Standardization – USB4

The next step in the standardization of connection will be USB4, which will appear in the first devices later this year. It will be compatible with all previous USB devices, it will provide a data transfer rate of 40 GB/s and connect two 4K displays at 60 Hz or one 5K. Initially, this standard was intended to be fully compatible with the Thunderbolt 3 mentioned above, but ultimately this solution is optional.

Nevertheless, it is expected that the vast majority of manufacturers will support this solution given that this compatibility is contained in USB4 and does not entail any licence fees. However, we will wait a little while for this progress, and so far we can use the already impressive Thunderbolt functionality 🙂.

Authors: Michał Bródka and Krzysztof Wołongiewicz

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